Thursday, April 12, 2012

What’s Wrong With The Iraqi Government’s Figures On Deaths In The Country?

In February 2012, the Iraqi government released its official figures for casualties from April 2004 to the end of 2011. It had over 69,000 deaths for that time period. That count was 30,000 less than other organizations that keep track of violence in Iraq. During the height of the civil war, the country’s ministries’ numbers were comparable to other groups, but since 2011 they have consistently been the lowest. While some Iraqi politicians have claimed that the official counts miss many deaths, it could also be argued that the statistics are being politicized by the prime minister who controls all of the security ministries.

On February 29, 2012, Iraqi government spokesman Ali Dabbagh announced the government’s numbers for deaths in the country. He said that from April 5, 2004 to December 31, 2011 69,263 Iraqis were killed. 239,133 were also wounded. The deadliest year was 2006 when there were 21,539 dead, and 39,329 wounded. 2011 was the least violent with only 2,777 casualties. Of the nation’s eighteen provinces, Baghdad was the deadliest with 23,898 dead for the reported time period, followed by Diyala, Anbar, and Ninewa. Muthanna in the south was the safest with only 94 killed over the seven years covered. A member of parliament’s human rights committee immediately criticized the report. The deputy claimed that there were thousands of people who disappeared during the civil war that were never counted. He also said that out in the countryside, reporting to the ministries was poor. No numbers on violence in Iraq can be anywhere near complete. During the civil war from 2005-2008 there were sections of the country that were too dangerous to enter and do any serious reporting. Some insurgent groups also buried their victims. The problem with the ministries numbers however are that they are so far below other organizations that keep track of violence in Iraq, which was not always true.

There are only two other groups that maintain figures for Iraqi deaths from 2004 to 2011. Those are Iraq Body Count that had 100,637 killed for the period covered by Baghdad’s report, and the Brookings Institution’s Iraq Index with 108,578. Those are roughly 31,000 more than the government’s numbers. The difference is so large that simply incomplete reporting as brought up by the human rights committee member cannot fully explain it.

Doing a comparison with other statistics shows the problem with the government’s numbers. During the Iraqi civil war, which lasted from 2005-2008, Baghdad’s figures were comparable with others. In 2006 for instance, Iraq’s Defense, Interior and Health ministries reported 21,539 deaths. Icasualties, which relied upon Western press reports had 18,654 killed, Iraq Body Count that uses Western and Iraqi sources had 28,536, the U.S. military noted 31,253, and the Brookings Institution’s Iraq Index, which relied upon the U.S. armed forces and the media, had 34,500. That placed the official figures towards the low end, but still close to the others. In 2007, the same thing was shown. In May, the ministries found 1,949 killed, in June 1,227, July had 1,980, and 1,773 in August. For those months the Department of Defense had 1,500 in May, 750 in June, 1,060 in July, and 900 in August. Iraq Body Count recorded 2,796 in May, 2,150 in June, 2,616 in July, and 2,384 in August. The United Nations had 2,820 in May, 1,448 in June, 1,425 in July, and 2,558 in August. Finally, icasualties found 1,980 in May, 1,345 in June, 1,690 in July, and 1,674 in August. After the sectarian war ended, the government was still congruent with the other groups. In 2009, Baghdad had 3,492 killed, icasualties reported 3,119, the U.S. military recorded 2,891, the Brookings Institution had 3,000, the United Nations 4,307, and Iraq Body Count 4,713. The next year, the ministries had 3,713 deaths, as compared to 2,500 for Brookings, 2,828 for icasualties, 4,045 for Iraq Body Count, and 4,855 for the United Nations. For those two years, the Iraqi government was right in the middle of the other statistics showing that they were reliable numbers to analyze. In the last year however, the government's numbers were not only the lowest, but far below the others. For 2011, the ministries said there were 2,777 casualties, compared to 4,150 by the United Nations, and 4,087 by Iraq Body Count. Such a large difference compared to the previous years and months points to some sort of reporting problems. With violence way down, the troubles with disappearances and deaths in the countryside are not as large a factor as during the civil war. In fact, it must be easier to record the on-going violence since there are no longer any areas that are off limits to officials, the security forces, or even reporters. What then could account for the vast differences in figures in 2011 when before the numbers were all close together? Politicization is the likely explanation. Since the 2010 parliamentary elections, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has controlled all of the security ministries in the country. He is promoting the country as an investment destination for foreign companies, and he also claims that he has brought peace and security to the nation after he cracked down on militias and insurgents in 2008. That’s the reason why his political list is called State of Law. He has a vested interest to keep the numbers low to help with his attempt to rehabilitate the image of Iraq after years of sanctions and war.

Comparison Of Iraqi Government Mortality Figures With Others

While the authorities' earlier figures are reliable, because of their similarity with other organizations, the totals recently released by the Iraqi government are not. With so much of the world focused upon the fighting in Iraq during the civil war from 2005-2008, there was no denying the level of violence going on within the country. The Iraqi ministries monthly figures were roughly the same as the other groups that were watching the country. In the last few years however, the security situation has greatly improved. The premier is trying to take advantage of this, and part of that is changing what outsiders think about Iraq. That’s likely the leading reason why the government’s death counts are so low today compared to the past. The authorities are keeping down the casualty numbers to make the security situation in Iraq look much better than it is.


Aswat al-Iraq, “Iraqi government figures on victims “unrealistic” – MP,” 2/29/12
- “More than 69,000 Iraqis killed between “2004-2011” – al-Dabbagh,” 2/29/12

Department of Defense, “Measuring Stability and Security in Iraq,” September 2007

Fischer, Hannah, “Iraqi Civilian Deaths Estimates,” Congressional Research Service, 9/5/07

Glanz, James, “Civilian Death Toll Falls in Baghdad but Rises Across Iraq,” New York Times, 9/2/07


Inter-Agency Information and Analysis Unit,” Security in Iraq,” United Nations

Iraq Body Count

O’Hanlon, Michael Livingston, Ian, “Iraq Index,” Brookings Institution, February 2012

Susman, Tina, “Troop buildup fails to reconcile Iraq,” Los Angeles Times, 9/4/07

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